Growing up in quarters provided by the company we were blessed with ample gardening space and water. We had a front yard and a back yard (only a courtyard was missing). The front yard was huge especially if you go by today’s dimensions of homes in towns and cities of India, discounting the palaces and forts of course. It was about 40ft by 80ft. The backyard was smaller – 40ft by 30ft.
This whole area was filled with rubble and dirt from construction so not conducive for growing anything let alone serious gardening. My mother must have had a vision of home grown vegetables and flowers and once got someone to get cart loads of manure from our milkman. The milkman was quite happy to get rid of the smelly stuff and actually get paid for it. Visions of all the savings from the vegetables grown in house provide enough of an incentive for my father to fund the venture.
A small note on the milkman of yore. We did not have the luxury of bottled milk or packets then. This though was the norm in bigger towns and cities even in the eighties. Thanks to Dr Verghese the White Revolution was catching on. Each state had its own brand of Amul. Andhra Pradesh had Vijaya milk to Nandini of Karnataka, Mother Dairy of Delhi etc. Our milk man was not Dr Verghese but the pant clad, two wheeler bound guy from the neighboring village. He would come in the morning by 6 and shout “amma paalu”. Since there was no fridge, for the early raisers (read grandparents) the call was music to their ears. This meant that they would get their amrutam (coffee/tea) in the next 15 minutes. Actually the habit of boiling the entire milk at one stretch was so ingrained that even now when we get milk packets, my mother actually empties all the packets and boil the entire milk at one go. It took a long while for her to get into the habit of opening each packet as needed. In Dr Verghese’s biography “I too had a dream”, he gave an account of how they had to suit the needs of Indian women boiling milk before usage unlike the west.
Coming back the garden – having added cart loads of manure from the milk man we got ready for the next step. The manure we had would meet the strict standards of organic certification even today. The only thing that was there was mounds and mounds of buffalo dung. Andhra Pradesh had a lot of buffalos. Cows were rare. Looking back, I think my current fascination for organic vegetables/products must have stemmed from this background. At that time, we did not know anything about organic or even growing vegetables at all. My mother grew up in a big town herself and never had a garden to talk about other than the tulsi and money plant pots. My Dad had some experience farming, but did not have much time to spare. Anyway sprinkle some sees, the soil is now enriched with manure, and we have plenty of water and sunlight. Hard to go wrong.
Yes it was a success and what a huge one at that. First we had planted some fruit trees in the peripheries, pomegranate, jamun, guava, neem. Guava was a favorite of mine and most of the children then. There were only two fruits that were plentiful and cheap, Bananas and Guavas . There were always some seasonal fruit, the custard apples, chickoo, mango.
Apple then was another story. They were always brought if you were visiting a sick person in a hospital or visiting a relative who needs to be impressed. Apple carts would actually be found only in front of the hospitals and bus stands/train stations. The apples had to do all the journey from the Apple country of The Himachal to the dusty plains of the south, sitting endlessly on the carts as they were expensive , the juice dried up during the process and what we had was a semi dried apples with pulp that was a cross between chalk and pulp. Eating apples was a punishment. I could never understand the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, given the relation with the hospital and lack of taste. I do not know the fate of apples in small towns now, though we are treated to good juicy ones in cities. It is an altogether different point that apples now are airlifted from across the world and the wax on them might be the secret for the juicy apples.
Guavas were never sold in our place. We just plucked them off the trees, they were plentiful. Only in bigger towns/cities did I see them being sold. Some trees prized for the best quality guavas than the others. Our guava tree was a late bloomer. It took almost 10 years to start bearing fruits and even then very few. But the guavas that came after the long wait and endless searches was the best I had in my life, the taste enhanced by the wait and the scarcity.
In the mean while the vegetables flourished and created a problem of plenty. Our roof was covered with asbestos or tin sheets and would get really hot during afternoons and summers. The advantage was that the good supply of water and heat provided the best growing climate for the creepers of the gourd variety. And so creepers it was. The best of all was the bottle gourd (sorakaya). It would grow fast and cover the entire roof. The crop was so plentiful that even after giving to every passing human, we had loads of them left. We had all imaginable dishes with the gourd including a sweet, which was pretty good. I remember my mother trading gourds for other vegetables with the vendor too. For some reason, I never grew tired of this vegetable. We cook it less because the other members of my family now do not have the same nostalgia for the vegetable.
Ridge gourd did not meet with the same success for some reasons. We always had a decent supply for maybe a few servings and the plant would dry up or get infested. Not a growth story. The snake gourd was a hit or a miss. Some years it was plentiful like the bottle gourd, otherwise it was a dud. We had a pargola for it as these gourds need to hand down and could not grow on roofs. And when we had a bumper crop, you could not walk under the pargola.
Bananas – the cooking variety, gave another bumper crop for a decade. Banana plants need a lot of water. We had diverted the grey water from dish washing to these plants which solved the water problem. Back then, the cleaning agents did not require a degree in chemistry. It was just ash mixed with little bit of surf and for really tough oily vessels, powdered red bricks and the pad was coconut husk. Gentle on the hands and gentle on the earth. The leaves, shoots, the fruit and the banana flower were all consumed in different ways. In fact, banana was substituted for potato in many recipes including paav bhaji. Only now do I know that there is in fact a variation cooked by Jains using banana and not the spud.
Tomatoes, Brinjals, broad beans, Radish, Ladies finger, Bitter gourd and Chillies were other vegetables that we grew with varying results. Cauliflower and cabbage never took off ground. Only now I know that these two are kings in consumption of pesticides. No wonder we could not grow any.
Vegetables that we brought were mostly onion, potatoes, carrots and beans. Tomatoes even in the eighties were seasonal not the year around crop like we get now. Tomatoes which are throw away price in season, were the most priced vegetables in other. In season, tomatoes even ended up in jam. For off season, they were sun dried and stored. We did not use tomatoes as much as it is used now. Tamarind was the most common choice for souring agent. Even when they were plenty, the kind that was grown was the local variety, which are sour and not the variety that is more abundant today because the store well and travel well.
After eating the different types of vegetables, I was surprised when we went to the north and every dish started and ended with aalu, pyaaz aur tamatar, though in winter you do get a variety of vegetables. Even bitter gourd was paired with potato which was and is quite unthinkable in the south. Our cook, when I was working in the North India, a Garhwali gentleman, could not even think cooking anything without aalu. That the spud was introduced in India only in 1830’s and now it is so abundantly used, that one wonders what the vegetable of choice was. The seasonality of vegetables is lost now with most vegetables available off the shelf all the time.
Organic, seasonal, local produce was what we had most of the time. I miss going out and deciding what to cook based on the vegetables growing. Hopefully it can be rectified in the near future, but then that is a quest for another day.